Late in the morning of October 4 last year, a convoy of Nigerien and American special forces soldiers in eight vehicles left the village of Tongo Tongo. As they made their way between mud-brick houses with thatched roofs, they were attacked from one side by dozens of militants, if not hundreds. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Nigeriens and Americans fled, some on foot, running for cover behind trees and clusters of millet, their boots caked in the light brown earth. By the time the fighting was over, five Nigeriens and four Americans were killed, their bodies left naked in the bush after the militants took their uniforms.
The news went straight to the front pages in the United States and sparked a conflict between the family of one of the soldiers and President Donald Trump, after the president made insensitive remarks during a condolence call to the soldier's widow. But the story also spread like wildfire throughout Niger, where the big news wasn't so much that American soldiers had been killed, but that Americans soldiers were fighting in the country in the first place.
"I was surprised to learn that Americans had died in the Tongo Tongo attack," Soumana Sanda, the leader of an opposition party in the Nigerien Parliament and taekwondo champion, told me in an interview in his pristine and sparsely decorated office in Niamey, the country's quiet capital on the banks of the Niger River. "That was the moment I found out, as a Nigerien, as a member of parliament, as a representative of the people, that there is indeed (an American) base with ground operations."